Elaine A. Phillips, professor of biblical and theological studies at Gordon College (Wenham, MA) and author of An Introduction to Reading Biblical Wisdom Texts, has graciously answered some of our burning questions about her book.
Before we get into those, though, here is a quick summary of her book: An Introduction to Reading Biblical Wisdom Texts is designed for undergraduate students and laypersons who are studying Scripture. Part One poses fundamental questions addressed by the genre of wisdom literature, explores definitions of wisdom and folly from the biblical perspective, describes the characteristics and forms of wisdom poetry, and places Israel’s wisdom tradition in a wider historical-cultural context. Part Two addresses the practical wisdom associated with Proverbs, treating both the contents and the academic questions that arise. Parts Three and Four focus on Ecclesiastes and Job, respectively, and on the interpretive challenges they raise. Finally, Part Five recognizes the place of Song of Songs in the wisdom tradition. This text is a highly accessible and engagingly written introduction to the Bible’s wisdom literature and is built on a strong scholarly foundation.
1. At the beginning of your book, you observe that some of the Bible’s wisdom literature is similar in content and/or form to wisdom literature from elsewhere in the ancient Near East. Why is this, and what makes biblical wisdom unique?
It is not surprising that the same questions arise across cultures, even well beyond the ancient Near East. Some of these are basic—how to speak appropriately and how to honor our parents, to name just two. Other questions wrestle with those gnarly circumstances where we just shake our heads and ask “why?” All land under the umbrella of “wisdom” because it takes sizable doses of insight and good judgment to walk through life’s challenges! What distinguishes biblical wisdom, however, is the unrelenting insistence that the “fear of the Lord” is a non-negotiable and foundational element.
2. People sometimes say that the book of Proverbs presents a black-and-white picture of the righteous and the wicked and what happens to them in life, whereas Ecclesiastes and Job present a more complex, realistic picture. Is this a good way of describing the situation?
Ecclesiastes and Job are indeed vastly different from the gems in the book of Proverbs, primarily because the former books focus on the uncertainties that accompany our experiences of death and suffering. Ecclesiastes and Job also have the luxury of indulging in lengthy verbal explorations. Biblical proverbs, by contrast, are brief zingers, designed to prod our intellect and imagination, and then leave us to ponder further implications. Once we pause for these reflective moments, we find that the book of Proverbs provides an array of lenses through which to view life. The composite picture is complex, often amusing, and rarely “black and white”!
3. Much of the book of Proverbs seems to consist of short, largely unconnected sayings. Does the book have any organization or structure?
There is a discernible structure to a good portion of Proverbs. The first nine chapters are extended portraits of wisdom and folly, both personified as women. Lady Wisdom preaches, warns, cajoles and invites. Folly is a contrasting seductress through and through. That sets the stage for the next three chapters which insist that the reader discern between righteousness and wickedness. At the center of the book, the king and the Lord are prominent. To be sure, chapters 10-22 do seem at first read to be a haphazard collection, but this is often the way we experience the events of any given day—a swath of activities not always coherently knit together. What can be said, however, is that the encomium in the last chapter on the ideal woman mirrors Lady Wisdom from the first part of the book. In this final portrait, wisdom is embodied.
4. Why is Ecclesiastes in the Bible? Many of its statements are pessimistic and some even sound downright impious. Can the viewpoint of this book be reconciled with those of Proverbs or Job, or with the viewpoint of the New Testament?
Ecclesiastes has gotten a bit of a bad rap, primarily because one of its key words has customarily been translated “meaninglessness” or something synonymous. As a result, there is an unfortunate tendency to cast a pall over the book as a whole. The Hebrew word, however, simply means “breath” or “vapor.” What is being described in Ecclesiastes is a painful reality—everything that is indeed a gift from God and is therefore meaningful, vanishes far too quickly. It is like a breath—here and gone because death ends it all. The words that the Preacher/Teacher utters are indeed stark, because they are observations about life “under the sun.”
5. Who is “the satan” in the book of Job?
In Job 1-2, we encounter “the adversary,” identified as one of the “sons of God” who are in God’s presence. The Hebrew word, satan, simply means “adversary” or “opponent.” In this context, he is clearly in opposition to God, challenging God’s wisdom at its very core and particularly the interface between love and justice in human relationships with God.
6. In his speeches, Job seems to criticize and attack God, but at the end of the book God says that, unlike Job’s friends, Job has spoken the truth about him (42:7). How can these realities be reconciled?
To be sure, Job declared that his suffering was the work of an enemy, someone out to destroy him. That someone was God as far as Job could determine (ch 16). Job’s dark anger boiled over in agonizing questions, as he protested the stony silence of God. Nevertheless, Job longed for his relationship with God to be restored; that plea surfaces repeatedly.
At the end of the book, God rebuked the well-meaning friends because they had not spoken correctly either “about” or “to” God (42:7-8) whereas Job had done so—from the depths of his faithful protests, and prayed oaths. There are two directions we might go here. First, God did challenge Job’s posture, but not necessarily the content of his words. A second option, however, invites us to interpret these two verses as God’s rebuking the friends for not speaking to God on behalf of Job. (The preposition in Hebrew allows for that.) Do we get it? The friends had been busy making pronouncements about God and trying to cudgel Job back into line. But they never met the repeated longing that was laced through Job’s pain—someone to pray for him, to intercede with his apparent enemy. In the ironic ending, it was Job who prayed for the friends. That had been his pattern all his life.
7. Why is the theology of Job’s friends “wrong”? Many of the things they say sound like they could have come from the book of Proverbs (and sometimes they do in fact quote directly from that book).
Job’s friends were clearly well-versed in the whole matter of retributive justice—a principle that is deeply embedded in the covenant itself. Bottom line: our actions (and words) have consequences. Thus, their theology was not “wrong.” Instead, it was wrongly applied because they failed to listen to Job and to know the wider context of Job’s life prior to the onslaught of the disasters.
8. When God answers Job from the storm (whirlwind) (Job 38–41), he doesn’t seem to respond directly to Job’s complaints that he has been treated unjustly. Is God’s refusal to give Job a direct answer here cruel and demeaning to Job, who has been pleading with God at length to answer him?
Our first response is perhaps to label God “insensitive,” and then try to figure out why God did not explain the scene in heaven, or lay out the whole fabric of universal justice. God, however, gave Job something much more satisfying and remarkable. God’s answers invited Job, and invite us, to take bold steps into unknown places—even of pain and suffering—and expect to meet God there in astonishing ways. That whirlwind of words from God (three chapters worth) sweeps us as readers into wildness, wastelands, and the far reaches of time and space, and something about that mighty recital was sufficient in and of itself to quiet Job—and those who follow in Job’s suffering path.
9. Many readers of the Bible might be surprised to see the Song of Songs described as “wisdom literature.” Why do you devote a section (two chapters) of your book to Song of Songs? Does it make sense to put this biblical book in the same literary category (i.e., “wisdom”) as Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Job?
At first blush, Song of Songs seems an unlikely candidate for inclusion under the same umbrella as Job, for example. Nevertheless, one of the great imponderable and challenging parts of living well is how to deal with sexuality and love. Since Ecclesiastes and Job are already rather disparate from Proverbs, why not add another dimension! Sexuality and love are the very fabric of our emotional and spiritual well-being.
10. Why is Song of Songs in the Bible, since it does not seem to explicitly mention God and since, read straightforwardly, it is basically a poem about erotic love? Didn’t early interpreters debate whether this book should be included in the Bible?
I’m a bit wary of declaring why something is in the Bible. Therefore, here is just a suggestion. Sadly, for much of Israel’s existence, God’s people were awash in the wider cultural contexts that exploited sex (sound familiar?) in public temple contexts—in this case, presumably to induce the gods in the heavens to shower them with rain and the resultant prosperity. Song of Songs is a remarkably counter-cultural declaration. Here, sexuality is a rich gift from God, to be experienced between two passionate lovers in private.
Elaine A. Phillips has served as professor of biblical and theological studies at Gordon College (Wenham, MA) since 1993 and for the past two decades has also been a visiting professor at Jerusalem University College. She is the author of numerous scholarly articles on the Old Testament and has served on the editorial board of the Bulletin for Biblical Research. Phillips has received several distinguished teaching awards and regularly lectures on the Bible to both professional societies and lay audiences.
For more information about An Introduction to Reading Biblical Wisdom Texts, visit our website.